The Academic Whose Podcast Is Trying to Change the Law

Probable Causation wants to bring research out of the ivory tower and into the fabric of our lives.

For that class of workers known as “the media,” reach is everything and having an audience is the ultimate goal. For academics, however, the equation is inverted. Writing for the public can be considered a quirk at best and, at worst, a distraction from the real, important work of the ivory tower: original research and publication. So, says Jennifer Doleac, an associate professor of economics at Texas A&M University, “my approach to academia has been to not worry too much about what academia wants me to do.” 

Probable Causation began with Doleac googling “how to start a podcast” and wondering what type of microphone she’d need.

Doleac is the creator and host of Probable Causation, a podcast about economics, law, and crime. The format is simple: Doleac has a conversation with a fellow economist, typically about a particular paper or research question. The topics are broad but the questions are specific, rigorous, and often at the center of many hot-button political issues that lead today’s headlines. What happens when you criminalize sex work? What are the effects of having a parent or sibling incarcerated? (That one might surprise you.) Are syringe exchange programs helpful or harmful?  

Photo provided by Doleac

The answers can be counterintuitive, and “unintended consequences” is a common refrain. In one of her favorite episodes, Doleac sits down with Rutgers University economist Amanda Agan to discuss the effect of “ban-the-box” policies, which prevent employers from asking job applicants about their criminal background. The well-intentioned policies are meant to prevent hiring discrimination against those who were previously convicted—yet research, including work from Doleac herself, has shown that ban-the-box policies actually decrease employment for black or Hispanic men without a criminal background. Employers, unable to ask outright, simply hire fewer applicants from groups that they assume are likely to have criminal records. 

Unintended consequence indeed. 

This is the type of research that should be in the hands of policymakers and which could impact hundreds of thousands of people. Doleac was used to tweeting about the papers and writing op-eds, but it would take her a full day to finish an 800-word column, so she thought a biweekly podcast might save time. And though there were crime podcasts (Serial, My Favorite Murder) and economics podcasts (EconTalk, Economics Detective) and policy podcasts (The Weeds), there weren’t any at the intersection of these topics that featured a conversation between two experts. 

The first step is google

Probable Causation began with Doleac googling “how to start a podcast” and wondering what type of microphone she’d need. Picking the people to interview would be easy, but networking was necessary to find those who could come up with the logo and title and intro music. Eventually, she received funding from Emergent Ventures, a fellowship program from George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, and was able to hire sound engineer Caroline Hockenbury, who “helps make us the most articulate version of ourselves.” 

In some ways, a podcast is far more work than writing—but once the team fell into a rhythm, the advantages of the new format became clear. Doleac was in full control of the episodes and it helped her discuss and promote relevant research at a steadier rate than all that time spent pitching and shaping op-eds. 

Audience-building can take a back seat since Probable Causation isn’t Doleac’s main job. Still, being a frequent guest on other podcasts (including, recently, Freakonomics) and being active on Twitter have helped increase reach. Doleac is an expert in her field and so, in a sense, did much of the audience-building before creating the podcast. If you’re interested in criminal justice policy, you might find her through any number of channels—her writing, a tweet analyzing the news on your timeline—and then you’ll learn about Probable Causation on her social media, website, and the bios she sends to event organizers for conference programs. It’s a natural extension of her other work. As for the episodes, there doesn’t seem to be any pattern to success; she’s often surprised by which episodes will do well. 

The podcast exists in an interesting space: it’s academia but not necessarily for academics. One audience undoubtedly consists of economists and econ students, and it’s been gratifying for Doleac to see her colleagues using episodes in classes, especially in recent months as instruction has gone online. But the second audience—policymakers—is in some ways the real audience, the target audience. It’s nice to see podcast downloads go up, but the best thing is receiving emails from policymakers who listen, and that happens far more than Doleac would have expected. As she puts it, “it makes me feel like I’m doing something right.” 

Academia not for academics

It’s probably not a coincidence that academics, who are never taught how to communicate their work to the public, are not always the best at communicating their work to the public. “We’re left to develop these skills on our own,” Doleac says, “but ultimately, my view is that the more we write for a smart lay audience, the more impact we have within our profession.” Now, while attending conferences, she scouts for people who might be good at explaining their research via podcast, which is not something she would ever have thought about before. 

And when she does approach others, academics can be “super nervous” about talking about their work. “The way we usually tell guests is, we will use the jargon, but then we will also explain what it means,” Doleac says. For the podcast to be of value to a wide audience, the content cannot be entirely insular, so they will say the words “regression discontinuity,” but also explain the term so that a general listener can understand.  

Doleac doesn’t coach anyone on how to speak, but she will spend time scripting out a particularly difficult technical detail and thinking about how best to explain it. Or she’ll reiterate what’s said in a slightly different way in the hopes that her explanation and the repetition will land. Other times, her work as a host is less about technical details and more about reassurance, encouraging her guests to be less hesitant in laying out the takeaways and arguing for why people should care. Many academics, especially junior scholars—“and myself when I was newer and just out of grad school”—can be shy about drawing policy conclusions because they are so aware of each and every caveat. “In general, the best advice to academics is to never spend your time making a podcast,” Doleac jokes, and beyond that, know that discussing nuances is good, but don’t be afraid to talk about the impact your research can and should have. 

The podcast recently celebrated its one-year anniversary and has received funding for another year. Doleac still hasn’t been able to bring herself to re-listen to the first couple of episodes, but believes she’s a better interviewer than at the beginning. Downloads continue to go up and she has a strong online following of academic and journalists and policymakers who all know about Probable Causation by now. “I’m still learning [the ins and outs of podcasting], but one of the things that surprised me was how much I would learn from these one-hour conversations with people I know pretty well and see at conferences all the time,” she says. “It’s such an incredible gift to have these people be willing to spend an hour just letting me pick their brain about this topic that they have often spent years studying, and I’m just blown away every two weeks by their brilliance. I’m looking forward to more of that.”

Probable Causation is not a substitute for academic research, but it is a contribution, and a different challenge and, crucially, fun. “People who are professors in general work very hard to get to a point where we basically get to think about whatever we want,” Doleac says, “and I tend to view it as an important public service to put some of that thought and knowledge back into the world.”

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